While Phish has been reigning over New York City, with their Baker’s Dozen shows currently underway at MSG, more musical after-parties have been planned around them than you could know what to do with. One of the coolest after-party shows of the whole season went down last Saturday night, when the psychedelic instrumental four-piece Circles Around The Sun took to The Gramercy Theatre. Lead by Chris Robinson Brotherhood guitarist Neal Casal, the band consists of (also CRB member) Adam MacDougall on keys, Mark Levy on drums, and Dan Horne on bass. This late-night show sold out quite awhile before it was set to go down, and for good reason: most likely because more people all the time are seeing and hearing just what is so incredible about Circles Around The Sun.
If we’re discussing setlist length and song time and all that this week, Circles Around The Sun should arguably enter the conversation. With just one album out so far (consisting of material composed for the set breaks of legendary GD50 shows), the on-stage destination for this group is lengthy, far-reaching jams, driven by four musicians that play very cleanly and comfortably together. A good amount of the time, these jams are patient, in a blissful way–in which the band niftily moves around and around in firmly secure, yet ever-shifting and fully colorful grooves. But out of nowhere, creative musical tricks from one or more of the band members will spike the action for a quick burst into more focused, enthralling climaxes.
Last Saturday at the Gramercy, this occured almost immediately into the start of the night: Casal lead the charge on the first tune into a gritty, rocking mind-bender, exalting the Gramercy Theatre crowd right away, and making them all the more vocally and visually appreciative that they came. The crowd commanded over by the band this night was definitely nothing less than surreal. At nearly any point in the night, one was hard-pressed to find a single body in their immediate area not twisting, shaking or even jumping to the band’s improv that is, honestly, among many other things, just beautiful ear-candy.
Some truly golden moments for guitarist Neal Casal came later on in the night, as he found himself more in the zone over the course of the evening. About halfway through the show, he began to throw down some hefty slide guitar playing, a fantastic combination with the dreamy musical background from the rest of the band. Then, soon into “Kasey’s Bones,” he started a guitar solo that towered high over the entire night. This was one of those special solos that finds a terrific stride, and rides it out for several exciting minutes, getting better and more exciting every bit of the way. The Gramercy crowd felt this in full, and built their wild cheers in tandem with Casal’s momentum. Similarly, Adam MacDougall presided over his multiple keyboards, of multiple intriguing sounds and tones, like a mad psychedelic doctor, throwing one crisp solo after another into the mix of his band’s live creations.
The band ended the night with a big take on their “Scarlotta’s Magnolias,” and then a quicker encore for the imploring audience. For sure, in this former tune, there is an inverted kind of take on the riff from The Grateful Dead’s “Scarlet Begonias,” which shouldn’t be surprising given the group’s original mission. But you don’t really hear anyone groaning here at another band cashing in on of the Dead’s music: Circles Around The Sun is anything but that, being instead some of the most unique and inspiring jam material being put out today.
Circles Around The Sun shows are still rare as of yet, with only a few shows happening throughout the year. But so far, that has just been making the nights they do get together all the more special. If you’re out on the west coast this weekend, you can catch the band on Friday July 28 and Saturday July 29, when they play two nights at Phil Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads.
Article and Photographs by Miles Hurley